IT is most famously known as the place where ships go to die, but it seems that the Gadani ship-breaking yard is also a place where workers perish on the job. Tuesday’s oil tanker explosion, which killed almost 20 workers, injured scores and left many trapped, should awaken us to the callous treatment of labourers in the informal sector. A mere two days before the tragedy, a small group of labourers from the ship-breaking yard had come to the Karachi Press Club demanding better working conditions and more attention to their safety. The next day, some of them were ordered into the doomed oil tanker to begin its dismantlement; they were told to work quickly, even though the tanker had six feet of oil in its hold, according to one injured worker. The explosion that followed once the workers fired up their blowtorches to start cutting through the metal was so intense that some individuals were hurled over a great distance and their bodies recovered from nearby villages.

The numbing frequency with which such incidents occur should not take the focus away from the hellish conditions in which these men are made to work. A number of workers and their representatives on the scene of the burning tanker have spoken of how poorly equipped they are to handle the hazards of their job. According to one member of the Gadani Municipal Committee, it was impossible to ascertain the exact number of workers trapped inside the tanker. It is the height of callousness that workers in their hundreds can be given dangerous work, without any effort being made to record their names, numbers or the specific task they have been assigned. The rescue and emergency response was equally appalling; according to a member of the National Trade Union Federation, the fire broke out at 9 am but rescue operations began at 3.30 pm.

What does it say for the authorities, and society at large, when not a whimper of protest goes up for workers who die under such hellish circumstances? In the case of Gadani, when workers have protested, they have met with police brutality. Meanwhile, the owners of these shipyards should be made to meet the families of each one of the dead and injured workers and give compensation. They should be made to sit with the union representatives and listen to their grievances — although that is perhaps too much to expect given that they reportedly did not even reach the site of the accident where scores of charred bodies were being recovered. However, they must now be made accountable for not maintaining acceptable standards of workplace safety. There is no sense in going on about accountability anywhere in the country if we cannot ensure it for those who toil so hard for a living.

Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2016

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